Warner Bros. 1983 / Rhino 2022
The vision never dies: a shining metal monument gets a new clarity and acquires a different depth in a box set sealing its fate as a solid bolide caught in time.
Long ago, when discussing the title track of his solo project’s debut platter, Ronnie James Dio said to this scribe, “The tiger symbolizes strength, while its stripes suggest impurity. The lines ‘Ride the tiger. You can see his stripes but you know he’s clean’ means that you must take advantage of the strength you have and not judge the heart of others by what seem to be impurities – these stripes – in the package it comes in,” and though he spoke of people, the former Prophet’s words can be applied to the package the 40th anniversary reissue of “Holy Diver” appears in. Released to also mark the great late artist’s 80th birthday, it’s supposed to shine a different light on one of the all-time greatest hard ‘n’ heavy albums – hence the artwork variance in which the devil-horns sign, eternally associated with the singer and thrown here by his mascot, Murray, is ordering the listener inside, not directing the salute to the throngs of bloodied angels, fast descending, that were absent from the 1983 original anyway and have been reinstated now – and it does, indeed, by offering, on four discs, alongside remastered version of the familiarly sounding song cycle, an especially prepared remix, a bunch of revelatory rehearsal takes, a smattering of singles and a live recording.
However, “different light” should imply the brilliance inherent in DIO’s start – and the hellishly heated luminosity has been there from the beginning, because “going for broke” meant for the warbler much more than a mere turn of phrase. For all the experience and fame Ronnie had amassed fronting RAINBOW and BLACK SABBATH, his fortunes seemed meager and he felt unfulfilled, the overall despair and the lack of funds rendering the approach to “Holy Diver” as a literally all-out effort, financed via remortgaging Dio’s home – of course, with complete support from his wife and manager Wendy – and emotionally balanced by friends flanking him, ex-SABBATH drummer Vinny Appice and ex-RAINBOW bassist Jimmy Bain who suggested the 20-years-old SWEET SAVAGE guitarist Vivian Campbell as the final piece of their musical puzzle and, thus, brought to pass the band leader’s perspective of an international collective possessed with creative verve. His risk was justified and family property secured, as the record’s eventual status amounted to double-platinum.
The quartet’s thunderously theatrical set, preserved for posterity in Fresno in December of their first year together, is remarkable in a lot of aspects, the major of those being the fact that the team transferred, if not truly transformed, from the studio to the stage six out of the album’s nine numbers, including an encore. When we chatted, Ronnie offered a simple rationale to such a choice, reasoning, “there were so many good songs – almost all of them are great songs.” With an impressive catalogue behind him, Dio boldly, and wisely, decided not to rely on past glories and limited his rear-view glance to two tracks per his previous groups – to properly establish his pedigree for the uninitiated and push forward his narrative for aficionados – so the fresh enactment of epics “Heaven And Hell” and “Man On The Silver Mountain” allocates, rather than allows, ample space for improvisatory flights. The show breathes energy, the deeper cuts “Straight Through The Heart” and “Shame On The Night” given a sharper relief, exposing the ensemble’s extraordinary, exuberant-yet-economic, interplay and the vocalist’s blistering, blustering delivery. Not for nothing “Holy Diver” was selected to be performed in its entirety two decades later; and not for nothing the record per se was mixed by Angelo Arcuri who inspired Ronnie to write the ebullient, lava-sludgy “Caught In The Middle” and who in the nearest future would become DIO’s front-of-house engineer.
It’s even sequenced with a prospect of shipping these songs directly to the audience, the relentless assault of “Stand Up And Shout” – that prompts punters to marvel at Ronnie’s mighty pipes and Vivian’s filigree and invites the crowd to join in on the refrain – presented as the perfect opener for any concert, and the aforementioned “Shame On The Night” as an equally perfect, suspenseful finale – and an opportunity for the rhythm section to unleash their sparse-but-loose groove. Still, placed at the platter’s center, “Don’t Talk To Strangers” finds the foursome building dynamic momentum from acoustic lace to electric attack and a tightly controlled scream in a magnificent manner Dio had patented on the stage staple “Children Of The Sea” – elevated here thanks to the group’s ability to glide above the ground – a few years earlier. “I like to write and sing fragile pieces, but I don’t often want to do a full-on ballad, so I introduce some pieces with ballad-like structure,” Ronnie explained during one of our chats. “These pieces are meant to put the listener in a more ethereal mood until the hammer falls. We are, after all, a heavy band, and the contrast between soft and loud makes it even heavier.”
Another sort of contrast is sculpted by Bain’s deliberately cheesy keyboard motif and Campbell’s six-string bombast on the record’s sole hit single “Rainbow In The Dark”: a number which the singer called “our MTV track” and never particularly loved but, well aware of the ’80s stylistic demands, had to implement and imbue with his usual spectrum-colored panache, the same swagger driving “Gypsy” to sweet rock ‘n’ roll delirium and the lucid, harmonies-laden “Straight Through The Heart” and the angry “Invisible” to the point of no return – the way of praying at the altar of Dio. And then, there’s the album’s titular monument, its memorable robust riff redolent of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and its lyrics hoisting hefty Blakean imagery to ambiguously, albeit not too vaguely, announce Ronnie’s liberty and let his diamond-bright light be seen and ultimately determine his artistic identity – the cut provided, like “Gypsy” and several subsequent compositions, with a logical, tangible coda in Joe Barresi’s remix.
The need for the acclaimed producer’s meddling with the history and somewhat upgrading the sonics that have retained their appeal is moot, but it was Dio himself who commanded the studio desk back in the day, and Ronnie couldn’t stand impartial to the results, so an outsider’s ear might prove to be beneficial, and Barresi, no stranger to the old environment and equipment, treated the album with due respect and tried not to get intimidated by the delicate endeavor. The changes Joe made are subtly adding dry clarity to the aural picture, occasional discrepancy in the instrumental detail – on “Invisible” and “Stand Up And Shout” to name just a couple of pieces – designed to keep the fan fascinated, while the countdown before the band strike doesn’t really augment the platter’s spirit. Vocal inflections are left intact here, yet followers will hear Ronnie’s work on shaping those on preliminary runs through half of the record on the last disc of this box set, stitched by Barresi into a tapestry to stress the consistency of Dio’s structural ethic. On closer inspection, Take 1 of “Don’t Talk To Strangers” bares the supple-to-taut nuances of his singing, displaying the elaborate flow of faux ad-libs and concealing his serrated edge, and emphasizes Jimmy and Vinny’s swelling swing; “Rainbow In The Dark” reveals Vivian’s alternative passages; and Take 3 of “Straight Through The Heart” increases the ensemble’s inventive ferocity. Quite noticeably enhanced is “Evil Eyes” which Wyn Davis remixed to render the B-side of “Holy Diver” – present here in its 1983 form as well, to accompany the punchy, crunchy mono and stereo edits of “Rainbow In The Dark” as they were committed to vinyl to radiate warmth today.
Often perceived as Ronnie’s statement of freedom, “Holy Diver” is where his poetry feels most introverted and his customary method of juxtaposition – yet another kind of contrast – toned down as not to alienate the Dio novices, but without this album there would be no further evil-or-divine records and there would be no DIO to shatter the world and continue to reverberate after Dio’s tragic demise. When asked what he perceived as his uniqueness, the singer defined it as “my voice and my ability to use it. My commitment to excellence, and a quality that allows me to be everyone” – only, referring to the last, chameleonesque quality, he was wrong: no matter how he tried, Dio couldn’t be anyone except himself, remaining the holy diver for ages.